Hungry Town: A Culinary History of New Orleans, the City Where Food Is Almost Everything
I’ve had a long and passionate love affair with New Orleans, although I’ve never been there. In fifth grade, I did my state report on Louisiana, and as a bored teenager in a Los Angeles suburb where everything was bright, shiny, and new, I’d dream of spending my days in the historic French Quarter, hanging out in smoky jazz bars and eating poor boy sandwiches at cramped lunch counters. I idealized the city even further when a childhood friend became a teenage runaway, hitchhiking her way to New Orleans with her much older boyfriend, both of them squatting in abandoned houses and panhandling in the streets. For some reason, that sounded like a beat novel I wanted to be a part of, as opposed to the nightmare it actually was.
Like everyone else, I watched with a heavy heart as one of our nation’s finest cities, so completely unlike any other place because of its history, demographics, and genetic makeup, disappeared off the face of the map, under sludge and murky water. I knew New Orleans would recover—it had to—but I was worried it would never be what it once was, that it would turn into a sad caricature of itself. If the premise of Tom Fitzmorris’ book Hungry Town is correct, no matter what happens, New Orleans will never be lost as long as its food culture survives and thrives, breathing life into the incessantly struggling city.
Fitzmorris’s thesis is actually quite simple: Food saved New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Now, I know many won’t believe that. I also know that recommending this book to lovers of food, regional cooking, or the city of New Orleans itself wouldn’t be fair. Truth be told, there are many who won’t understand the purpose of this book. Many will not like the author’s obsessive details or encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s food and restaurants. They'll think he's pompous, self-important, and crazy to think that it was the poor boy or red beans and rice or simple gumbo that saved the city—and that’s fair. But for those of us who know the power of food, its ability to bring people together, to calm the nerves and the soul, and quiet the hunger, we can believe that Fitzmorris is right in every way.
The author is a lifelong New Orleanian who’s been critiquing the city’s food, writing about it in various formats, and discussing it endlessly on his radio show for over thirty years. It all started in the late 1970s, when he began publishing a newsletter called The New Orleans MENU, which lives on today on his website. It would be an understatement to say that Fitzmorris is a fanatic, a man completely obsessed with his city’s food culture, its Creole and Cajun cuisine, and its restaurants; Hungry Town is the embodiment of this fanaticism.
After Hurricane Katrina, the author was forced to stay away from his beloved city for longer than he ever had before: about two weeks. While away, he received word that some of the city’s restaurants were reopening, using bottled water and small burners to feed the crowds that braved the storm. Fitzmorris began calling chefs and friends in the area, each day adding to a list on his website that featured all the eateries that were opening their doors. Just two weeks after the hurricane blew the lid off of New Orleans, twenty-two restaurants were open for service. It is because of this and similar compelling evidence that Fitzmorris believes that food saved New Orleans and that its slow-coming rebirth is beginning in the kitchen.
Interwoven with recipes for delicious New Orleans treats, menus from some of the city’s oldest restaurants, timelines, and a rundown of every major player in the New Orleans food scene, is the story of how Fitzmorris' love affair with his city’s food began. I thought Hungry Town was a beautiful ode to a great city and its wonderful food, but I know it’s not for everyone. This summer, I will be traveling by train to New Orleans and I’ll be using Hungry Town as my restaurant guide, which I think is a testament to how informative Fitzmorris' book is and how alluring a beignet and a cafe au lait can be.